RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe dropped behind-the-scenes efforts to kill legislation related to the Sea of Japan on Thursday, a decision that could upset a major trading partner but also cuts short the GOP’s efforts to exploit an offbeat but politically fraught issue.
McAuliffe (D) had promised Northern Virginia’s large Korean American community during last fall’s campaign that as governor, he would make sure new school textbooks note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea.
The pledge — made in community forums, on Korean TV and in writing — was important to Koreans, who resent the Sea of Japan designation as a holdover from Japanese occupation.
McAuliffe appeared to have second thoughts after Japan, which represents one of Virginia’s biggest export markets and the state’s second-largest source of foreign investment, said through Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae that the dual name designation could harm trade relations.
While McAuliffe never publicly opposed the legislation — his office had said only that he would have no official position until it cleared the General Assembly — his senior aides and the governor himself had privately pressed legislators to kill it in committee so he could avoid having to either sign or veto it, according to four people close to the situation.
That behind-the-scenes effort angered Korean community activists, who represent a crucial voting bloc in the swing state. Republicans were ready to make political hay, rushing in to support legislation that had initially been regarded as parochial if not silly.
The Korean Embassy dispatched its own ambassador to Richmond on Thursday to meet with McAuliffe and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). McAuliffe aides later told legislators and staff that the administration no longer planned to thwart the legislation, according to two people close to the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
“If they send me the bill to me, I’m gonna sign it. I’ve always said that,” McAuliffe said in response to a reporter’s question Thursday. “But if I can work with everybody to get it so that everybody’s in a good place, then great. That’s what you should do as governor.”
Lobbyists from McGuireWoods, who represent the Japanese Embassy in the matter, declined to comment.